A Lesson From Babies…It’s Okay To Struggle

Last week’s parent/toddler class was all about feeling ‘stuck’. 

The previous week, 21 month old Audrey had wedged herself between the bars of the wooden climbing structure and looked at me with a worried expression. “Are you stuck?” I asked. I moved close and — without touching her — talked her through pulling her legs out from between the bars and reaching to the bar below so that she could climb down again. After glancing at me with a look of self-satisfaction, she climbed back up to repeat the experience. Another toddler, Travis, then climbed the bars and tried getting stuck, too. 

Travis seemed to remember this last week. He climbed up the structure, slipped his legs through the bars and looked at me meaningfully. “Are you stuck?” I asked. He smirked at me before freeing himself again. Soon, Audrey, and then Charlotte followed suit. Charlotte sat between the bars for a long time, swinging her legs in the “stuck” position.

A few minutes later, Sage placed a stacking cup inside one of the buses. She tried to pull the cup back out. I sensed her mom wanting to help, but resisting the urge.  “Is it stuck?” I asked.  She fiddled with the cup for a moment, then left it and moved on to something else.

Later Sage climbed onto one of the large wooden blocks, sat on top and seemed unsure about getting down again. “Are you trying to get down?” I asked. She reached out for me as if to ask to bring her down. “I won’t let you fall”, I said, not touching her, but just spotting. She was hesitant and seemed uneasy. “Do you feel stuck up there?” I asked. She reached her arms towards me again to help her, and though I felt like a meanie, I resisted. “You want me to help you down, but I’m going to let you do it, and I won’t let you fall.”

Sage spent a few moments inching across the top of the block and looking down at the floor before she gained the courage to slide down the side, reaching her feet a few inches until she touched the floor. “You did it.” Thrilled, Sage pranced victoriously across the room towards her smiling parents.

Babies don’t mind struggles. To them, frustration isn’t a bad word. But without meaning to, we teach our babies to fear those things by projecting our adult point-of-view, by reacting (or overreacting), hurrying to “bail them out”.  climbing structure

If we want to encourage our baby’s ingenuity, persistence, and self-confidence, it’s best to try to stifle our urge to “help” and provide plenty of opportunities for safe struggles, even when they cause a little frustration. Our infant might need to work for days, even weeks struggling to roll from back to tummy, or stretching himself to reach the toy that is just out of his grasp. If we stay out of the way, just verbally comfort, acknowledge and encourage our child, (giving him breaks, or helping minimally if he starts getting too frustrated or exhausted) he eventually experiences (and completely owns!) the thrill of his accomplishment. 

By feeling “stuck”, overcoming obstacles and also dealing with “failure” to achieve a particular goal, our children build strong coping skills that will make life’s temporary setbacks much easier to bear. It’s great to succeed, but “not there yet” is a part of life and okay, too.  Then, like the toddlers in class, they can continue to approach feeling stuck as just another fascinating state of being, an experience to examine, embrace, and hopefully overcome through confident perseverance.

Wouldn’t it be grand if we could all retain this healthy, positive attitude towards struggle…if we could face writer’s block, a job search, being in-between relationships, grappling with life’s toughest challenges with interest and enthusiasm rather than fear?


I share many more lessons from babies in my book: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting 

(Thumbnail photo by Jude Keith Rose)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Right on!

    If you are interested, I would like to recommend a book! It is called, “The Genius in All of Us”–Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong by David Shenk. I’m sure you can find it at your local library.

    It has some remarkable insights that support, at a scientific level, the importance of giving children the opportunity to struggle & overcome obstacles.

    1. Thanks, Kari, that sounds like a book I’ll enjoy!

  2. Khadija Anderson says:

    Beautiful! I have a family that refers to a local park as “Hover Park” because the parents that seem to go there never let their kids do real exploring or getting “stuck” on the play equipment. NIce article to remind us, as Montessori said, “Pause and watch the child”.

    1. Hover Park…that’s brilliant! They should erect a sign…with the Montessori quotation at the bottom of it, of course. Khadija, thanks!

    2. Montessori also taught that we should hammer things into the kids to push them to their potential, causing many children to have feelings of inadequacy and shame. Many of them are now languishing at everything they do, because they never feel good enough. Thanks Montessori for taking away their childhood.

      1. I’m not that familiar with Montessori, but know that she respected children and encouraged adults to “follow the child”. (I have also heard that many misinterpret her ideas.) That doesn’t sound like hammering things into them to me, but please illuminate me, Gerald. I’d like to hear more…

      2. Gosh. That is what Montessori is about at all. Have you had a bad experience Gerald?

        1. SOrry that should said that’isn’t’ what Montessori is about at all.

  3. “feeling ‘stuck’ as just another fascinating state of being, an experience to examine, embrace, and hopefully overcome through confident perseverance. ”

    very nice.

  4. I remember when my son was 15 months old and was going through his first verbal explosion, and he seemed to really enjoy saying “it’s stuck!” all day long (a LOT of things get stuck when you are 15 months old!) so much so that he even said it in his sleep.

    Dealing with being stuck, or things getting stuck, is just a part of development. Children will feel empowered if they can do it themselves (even if they had a little guidance, when asked for).

    1. Lisa, I love that he said it in his sleep! And I agree about the empowering effect that big and small accomplishments have on our children (and us, too). Thanks for sharing…

  5. Wonderful article Janet. Right on the money as usual and a lesson not only for the infant or toddler, but all of us of all ages. My little one is going to be 25 years old next month, yet the lesson you share is applicable to him as to any of your young students. Thanks!

  6. Again, thank you for these postings. Since I read this I have been trying to implement your ideas and it worked so well just a couple of days ago… my daughter climbed into her little radio flyer wagon with a bucket of chalk in her hand. Took her a while to figure it out but she managed to get herself and her chalk in there. After playing for a while just exploring her space she wanted out. Tried to get out herself but couldn’t do it with the bucket of chalk in her hands still.

    First reaction was just to help her and lift her out, BUT I had just recently read this post so I said “you got in, I am sure you can get out”. She looked confused but then tried but with the bucket it was not possible. She looked at me with arms in the air and whined. “You can do this, I know you can do this”. She tried again but could not figure it out, with bucket STILL in hand. So, I suggested she put down the chalk and where she could put her hands… she followed the instruction but just as she was almost there, gave up, climbed back in and put her hands in the air again for me to help. Me – “you were almost there, you can do this and I am here so you are safe”. She then without any suggestion proceeded to pull down the seat of the wagon so she could stand on that and climb out. Looked at me with a big smile, grabbed her bucket and walked off with a little sass in her step. She was so proud of herself.

    “You did it” is the word of the week so thank you again!

    1. Natalia,

      Thanks so much for sharing this beautiful and inspiring story. Your daughter is a lucky girl to have such a patient mom!

  7. I could hug you! This is something I talk to our families about ALL the time – empowering their children to help themselves. Their pride and satisfaction in their acheivement when they succeed on their own tells it’s own story and is the reward. You explain it all so simply too. If you write a book I will personally buy a copy for every family in my 0-2’s room for the next 10 years!! Promise! Thanks, Nicole

    1. Great! For that I’ll hug you back! Nicole, I’m thrilled to make contact with a like-minded soul and educator. Please keep in touch here and consider joining the community https://janetlansbury.com/community/ There are other readers here from Australia, too!

  8. Thanks Janet. I’m one step ahead and am just awaiting approval. I can’t wait!

  9. This also works with children with ASD- I spent about 15 minutes encouraging a 3-yr-old non-verbal child with ASD to venture down the slippery dip by himself, as he reached out his hand to me and grunted desperately at me… it does take patience… eventually he did go down himself, and his smile lit up the universe!

  10. I hear the word “stuck” all day long from my toddler. At 2 1/2 she is fascinated by this idea and proclaims that everything is stuck–from herself in the car seat or grocery cart to her toys. She also yells “I did it” with a big smile when she does something on her own. It’s one of my favorite things right now.

  11. Wonderful article! Well written and highlights the issues very well. I’m reminded of the way the butterfly has to work its way out of the chrysalis to complete the transformation from pupae to ‘butterfly’. If the chrysalis is broken open to ‘help’ the butterfly emerge, the butterfly can’t fly and dies. As someone who loves to ‘help’, I have found the butterfly story a helpful metaphor to understand the importance of enabling others to find their way out of their predicaments.

    Such an important concept for parents and all of us to really ‘get’. From infants to old age, rushing to help, instead of letting people work through things, leads to dependency and feelings of inadequacy. I’ve recently seen the reality of the two different approaches taken by families, both with the best intentions, to women who are in their 80’s and the trajectory of each approach is stunningly clear. One woman is independant, competent and feisty, the other dependant and submissive. The environment is so powerful.

    Obviously facilitating someone to “work through things” or struggle with stuckness means providing information, asking appropriate questions together with the provision of respectful companionship, as per the example in this article. This capacity building approach of taking a healthy positive approach to ‘struggling’ works for people of all ages, whatever their learning situation.

    1. Carolyn, thank you for adding these terrific insights. It’s challenging, but certainly worthwhile to recognize the point at which our loving, well-intentioned help isn’t really helping. It’s quicker and easier for us to do (whatever it is) for a child than it is to encourage him to solve the problem independently. I’ve found this to be one of the most fascinating parenting challenges (and I love to ‘help’, too!).

  12. Thanks for re-posting this Janet, our 2 month old has just started trying to roll over using ALL his strength and I can see how easy it would be to help him over but I know it will be so much more rewarding for him (and us) to let him achieve it in his own time. It\’s so amazing how infants just know instinctively how to move and what their next step is to be, I\’m so excited to see it all unfolding!

    1. Hi Kerry! Yes, your patience will pay off…for both of you. Enjoy this exciting time!

  13. Oh man, there is little that drives me crazier faster than watching parents leap in to “help” when kids are working on figuring things out for themselves. It’s not just large motor things either. It can be working puzzles or opening brads or using tongs to serve themselves a slice of banana. Sir Ken Robinson talks about how we’ve come to think of mistakes as a bad thing. Mistakes are how we learn and if we step in before children have a chance to fail/fall we aren’t being very good teachers! I like how you put this from the perspective of the child: stuck is just another state of being, not good or bad. Thanks for this piece. I’ll definitely be sharing it.

    1. Tom, I am totally with you. Thanks for sharing.

  14. As ever a great post. I’ve learnt a lot reading your stuff! I was just wondering how you would recommend I deal with my boy falling off stuff. He’s 16 mths, and wants to climb up everything! Not walking yet, but just learning to stand un-supported. I have tried to follow your approach + not rush him into doing stuff before he’s ready. I’m currently trying to show him how to get down from the sofa/bed/etc feet first, not nose first. He’s always peering over the edge,+ I have to really bite my lip so I’m not constantly saying “you’re gonna fall!! move back!! dont do that!!” My head says he’s got to learn + the odd fall is part of that, but my heart says NO he’ll hurt himself! How do you balance it so he can learn safely? I expect you get asked this A LOT. I try to use my common sense in these things but its hard to be consistent with this internal battle going on. Thanks for the inspiration your work gives me! E.

    1. I taught my son how to climb down off the bed and couch at the age of 5 months, I started to show him how to get down off the bed soon as he rolled over. I would say put your feet first, turn around, etc. And now he is 10 mnths and when he tries to climb head first i remind him and say feet first and he always turns around!

  15. Wonderful post. Love the way you tied in that all of our struggles throughout life are as ok and important for growth as those faced by the babies and toddlers in your class. Beautifully said. Thanks as always. I will share with my families.

  16. Allison Roseman says:

    This is a great post, but I have a hard time applying to my 8 month old who just screams his head off at me anytime I put him on the floor. He just crawls over to me, climbs on me and screams until I pick him up. This is really hard to do when I am trying to make meals. I have let him cry up to 4-5 minutes at a time, but it doesn’t stop. Does anyone have any suggestions?

    1. Allison,
      I don’t have experience in this matter but wanted to pass on something I had read while reading every sleep book out there. The Baby Whisperer advocates “pick up out down;” you would hold your son until he calms, then put him back down to play (maybe with something that he could mimic what you are doing?) – and continue the pattern until he calms and remains calm.
      I don’t know if this is in line with the philosophy of this blog, but I thought I’d pass it along. And also “this too shall pass.”

    2. When he gets a little bit older he might like a “Learning Tower” (google it). It’s kinda like having a chair up to the counter to stand on, but the height is adjustable and it has four sides (safer). It also has a step ladder built in so the child can get up by him/herself when able.
      Both my kids have loved to have their own little mixing bowls while I cook dinner. I put in a pinch of this and that food to their bowl that they stir or snack on. Or a tiny bit of water in a bowl to play with.
      My daughter likes to take her meals up at the counter, standing in her Learning Tower…and I’m right there but can get the dishes done! 🙂

  17. I too love the bit: “feeling ‘stuck’ as just another fascinating state of being, an experience to examine, embrace, and hopefully overcome through confident perseverance. ”

    I work with both children and adults. As I read your words I giggled a bit. I just had an adult say “I am stuck” in class yesterday and then talked her through some options on how to find a way to move differently. As a Feldenkrais Practitioner, I love hearing those words as I know that real (and embodied) learning is at hand.

  18. Where did you get this climbing structure?

  19. Eleanor,

    We say ‘backwards for safety’ as the prompt for turning around and moving safely down something. Both my boys love it, and even sometimes help other children with a little reminder 🙂

  20. This was the perfect time for me to read this post. My 8 month old daughter is quickly becoming very mobile. This is exciting for all of us, but has meant a lot more “frustration” as she finds herself in difficult positions.

    The latest thing is pulling up. She can get up alright but struggles with figuring out how to get back down. I always come close and offer support without physically helping her down. My husband, however has a harder time “letting his baby struggle.”

    I am very pleased to say I read this post to him and it’s like I finally got through. Thank you Janet!

  21. Hi Janet,

    I have a 10-month-old little boy and have been enjoying reading your articles very much. So much of this one rang true for me in our current days. My son is MOMENTS away from crawling. In fact, he is crawling, but only backwards so far. He is desperate to progress and practices all the time. This means he often backwards-wedges himself into places – under the bed frame, the end table, into a corner etc. I have been doing my best not to help him. But he’s a very sensitive little person, and sometimes, he will try and try, but then put his head down and cry dejectedly. Once he’s crying I do rescue him and reposition him so he can get back to practice (or give him a good hug first if he'[s very upset). Should I still be holding off and not helping him once he gets to the point of crying?

    Thank you, I appreciate your insight.

  22. I love your teachings Janet! They are so simple yet profound when practiced. I have a 4 month old and allowing her self play time at first was hard, not to interject or help her when she got frustrated. But now, I trust her process of getting “there” and she gets so excited when she does what she is setting out to do! My mother bought she and I a copy of your book and it is wonderful! Thank you so much!

  23. Hi Janet,
    I’m wondering what your thoughts are on how/when to help my 4.5 month son who loves to roll onto his tummy but then gets stuck and very upset – I have tried leaving him to figure out how to roll back, and have seen a couple attempts to do this, but he generally gets extremely worked up before I then have to intervene.
    Would love your suggestions!
    Thank you,

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